The Hollywood studios are not ordinarily in the art-film business, but they've made an exception, perhaps unintentionally, for the New York filmmaking duo Joel and Ethan Coen.
As soon as the brothers' low-budget debut, Blood Simple, grabbed critical praise in 1984, studio executives were scrambling to fund their next efforts. Twentieth Century Fox was the lucky one to pick up the team's most accessible movie to date, the hair-raising 1987 comedy Raising Arizona, which grossed a healthy $21 million. The competition for the next Coens project heated up, and Fox not only grabbed their period gangster drama Miller's Crossing in 1989 but the one after that, too. So when Miller's Crossing wound up a costly casualty amid last year's batch of gangster pictures, the rigorously independent Coens became members of an elite Hollywood cadre that actually gets studio financing for art movies.
Written while the Coens were avoiding writing Miller's Crossing, their new, $10 million Barton Fink stars John Turturro as a '40s New York playwright with writer's block who holes up in a seedy L.A. hotel, struggling to pen his first screenplay with nightmarish results. Top-notch or not, this sort of atmospheric, nonlinear storytelling is not the stuff of which standard movie hits are made.
Luckily for everybody, when Fox unveiled Barton Fink at the Cannes Film Festival this spring, it collected an unprecedented three prizes, including the Palme d'Or, best director, and best actor for Turturro. This pushed Fox into peddling the movie as a bona fide art film, a genre that's a cinch to perform in Europe but an unlikely candidate for the American mainstream. ''The majors aren't generally geared to selling art films,'' admits the Coens' executive producer, Ben Barenholtz. ''It was not an easy movie to come up with an image for.'' Fox settled on a photo of Turturro peering through horn-rims with a mosquito on his forehead. ''It's a little weird,'' admits Barenholtz. ''But it gets across the offbeat quality of the film.''
Fox is resolutely, and aggressively, sticking to the high road, relying on critics' raves and references to the Cannes prizes in its ads. ''We're playing Barton Fink for all it's worth in five cities in August, then going to other markets in mid-September,'' says Fox executive vice president Tom Sherak. ''If it crosses over in some markets, great.'' The studio also opted to open the movie in late summer, when the big locomotives would be losing steam. Says Barenholtz, ''It's counterprogramming to have an intelligent film out there against the summer films.''
Despite their lack of commercial clout, there's still interest in the Coens' next script from several studios (which, like Fox, are taking a wait-and-see approach) and independents Carolco and France's CIBY 2000 (which is also backing director David Lynch). ''Everybody thinks that sooner or later the Coens will make a really good, commercial movie,'' insists one studio production executive. ''Finally, people believe that filmmakers who make you laugh always have the potential of breaking through.''